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Can You Trademark That Tagline?

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| Legal Update

There are two types of taglines or slogans companies typically seek protection of, taglines tied to an advertising campaign or sales of a good or service, and taglines or slogans that are on merchandise intended to invoke or amuse people and drive them to purchase the merchandise. In deciding whether obtaining protection is a good business decision, most companies weigh the potential costs of obtaining protection against the strength of the mark for which protection is desired. A question that we commonly encounter when companies seek protection of a tagline is whether the tagline is even protectable. The short answer to that question is yes, usually.

Historically, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the courts have been reluctant to extend trademark protection to slogans and taglines, leading to the reluctance of companies to seek protection at all. Over the past few decades, however, protection of taglines has become more commonplace, as it is now settled that the level of protection afforded to a tagline or slogan is the same as that for other trademarks. As early as 1970, the courts decided that slogans as trademarks are subject to the same scrutiny as non-slogan trademarks. See Roux Laboratories, Inc. v. Clairol Inc., 427 F.2d 823 (C.C.P.A. 1970). Since then, courts and administrative bodies have followed the Roux Laboratories decision in evaluating slogan and tagline marks using the same scrutiny as non-slogan marks. For example, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board affirmed registration of the slogan “AMERICA’S BEST CHEW” in 1986 because it had established secondary meaning. See Taylor Bros. Inc. v. Pinkerton Tobacco Co., 231 U.S.P.Q. (BNA) 412 (T.T.A.B. 1986).

To qualify as protectable, taglines or slogans must be either inherently distinctive or creative, or have developed enough secondary meaning to immediately call a product or service to mind. Secondary meaning is not typically a company’s first choice in establishing that a tagline is protectable. Descriptive taglines, however, require evidence of secondary meaning to be protectable. Secondary meaning refers to the distinction the mark has acquired with consumers to associate the mark with a source. This distinction can take time to establish, and can be proven with either five years of continuous use in commerce or substantial sales and advertising. Accordingly, unless the tagline is used in a substantial advertising campaign, establishing secondary meaning can be a lengthy and uphill battle with the USPTO.

More frequently, a tagline will be protectable if it is considered inherently distinctive or creative. Better protection is afforded to marks that are more distinctive or creative. Taglines and slogans are subject to the same scrutiny as non-tagline trademarks when being examined by the USPTO for inherent distinctiveness. Inherently distinctive or creative taglines typically consist of made-up words, words that are surprising or unexpected in the context of their usage, or words that cleverly connote qualities about the product or service. Examples of inherently distinctive taglines include Coca-Cola’s “It’s The Real Thing,” McDonalds’ “I’m Lovin’ It,” and Nike’s “Just Do It.” The threshold for inherent distinctiveness is not notably high. For example, “Your Financial Service is Our Business” was registered on the basis of inherent distinctiveness for insurance planning services, as was “From Maine’s Cool Breeze to the Florida Keys” for moving services. Although inherent distinctiveness is not a particularly high threshold, merely informational taglines are not protectable. Taglines such as “Think Green” or “Proudly Made in the USA” have been denied protection by the USPTO for being merely informational.

Generally, taglines and “traditional” trademarks are governed by the same rules. Accordingly, so long as a tagline or slogan is either inherently distinctive or has developed secondary meaning, a tagline is protectable as a trademark. If a tagline is closely linked to an advertising campaign or used frequently on goods or services, it is likely a good business decision to file for trademark registration with the USPTO.

This update was prepared by the Intellectual Property practice of Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP. For more information, please contact your Nutter attorney at 617.439.2000.

This update is for information purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any specific facts or circumstances. Under the rules of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, this material may be considered as advertising.

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